Paris’s zoo reopens to the public on Saturday after a €170 million renovation that took more than five years and will feature 1,000 animals and far fewer fences and cages.
Instead the completely reconfigured zoo will be a place where visitors can step into the world of animals, rather than one where creatures are on display like paintings in a museum.
"We've invented a new zoo, whose concept is different from 20th century ones, where animals were exhibited like in some amusement park," said Thomas Grenon, head of the National Museum of Natural History, which manages the Vincennes Zoo.
"This is a 21st century zoo, which will show biodiversity and talk about it, and where the animals will live together as they do in their natural environment" – as far as is practical, of course.
The idea of taking humans into the world of animals unfolds in the five distinct "biozones" at the 14-hectare Paris Zoological Park in the eastern suburb of Vincennes.
An African Sahel-Sudan plain has giraffes, lions, white rhinos, while a greenhouse reconstructs the climate of the tropics with a portion devoted to Guyana and the other to Madagascar.
(Meet the animals at the zoo thanks to this video from Parisian News TV.
There you can see a manatee chugging along in the waters, flittering parrots and languid lemurs. A section devoted to Europe has wolves and vultures. And finally the last part takes visitors to Patagonia with penguins and sea lions.
Visitors will walk along the edge of the "biozones" on a path. And whether they see any animals will be up to the creatures themselves.
"We've put an end to the old ways of pushing animals out to the edges of their enclosure to entertain the public," zoo veterinarian Alexis Lecu told AFP, explaining that the animals will have hideouts into which they can retreat if they prefer.
"There are the photogenic favourites – lions, giraffes and rhinoceroses – which everyone associates with zoos, but there are also less visible species, like anteaters and wolverines, for which you will need patience to see," said Lecu.
Animals bred in captivity
Elephants and bears are no longer part of the lineup: the new thinking is that it would be unkind to include such range-loving animals in the confines of a city zoo.
The monkey enclosure is a whopping eight metres high and filled with trees – a vital feature for this highly-socialised species. The spacious wolf enclosure has secret spaces for food to be hidden, thus helping to ease the boredom of animals geared to hunt. And the lions have a heated rock on which to lounge, an important creature comfort of the savannah.
All of the animals – 74 species of birds, 42 species of mammals, 21 reptiles, 17 amphibians and 15 fish – have been bred in captivity.
The zoo's signature landmark, the 65-metre tall Grand Boulder, has been kept much as it was, though it did also undergo a full renovation.
Throughout through the different environments visitors will see a series of explanatory panels that indicate which species are endangered and why.
"We hope that visiting this zoo can raise awareness of the protection of nature," says Eric Joly, director of the zoo’s botanical gardens told Le Figaro.
Not everyone, however, is scrambling to pile laurels on the new zoo as it gets set to open.
Not everyone in favour
“Pretending that zoos have a direct role in the preservation of nature is a sham," Jean-Claude Nouëts, president of advocacy group La Fondation Droit Animal, Ethique et Sciences, told France Info radio.
According to him, the money spent on the park would have been better used to build housing for homeless people who camp in the Bois de Vincennes.
It's a whopping sum. The French government chipped in €30 million for the park’s renewal, while the remaining €140 million came from private investors like telecom company Bouygues. The investors will be reimbursed up to €15 million per year over the next 20 years, making the financial success of the park essential.
Every adult who shells out €22 to get in or €14-16.50 per child will essentially be paying the investors for the park's renovation.